Newlyweds Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop), on their honeymoon in Hungary, learn that due to a mixup, they must share a train compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Béla Lugosi), a Hungarian psychiatrist. Eighteen years before, Werdegast went to war, never seeing his wife again. He has spent the last 15 years in an infamous prison camp in Siberia. On the train, the doctor explains that he is traveling to see an old friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), an Austrian architect.
Later, the doctor, Peter, and Joan, share a bus, which crashes on a desolate, rain-swept road. Joan is injured, and the doctor and Peter take her to Poelzig's home, built upon the ruins of Fort Marmorus, which Poelzig commanded during the war. Werdegast treats Joan's injury, administering the tranquilizing drug hyoscine, causing her to behave erratically. While Peter puts her to bed, Werdegast accuses Poelzig of betraying the fort during the war to the Russians, resulting in the death of thousands of Austro-Hungarian soldiers. He also accuses Poelzig of stealing his wife Karen while he was in prison. Early on in the movie, Werdegast kills Poelzig's black cat, and Poelzig explains that Werdegast has a strong fear of the animals. Poelzig carries a second black cat around the house with him while he oversees his "collection" of dead women on display in glass cases – including Karen.
Poelzig plans to sacrifice Joan in a satanic ritual during the dark of the moon. He is seen reading a book called The Rites of Lucifer, while a beautiful blonde woman sleeps next to him. The blonde is Werdegast's daughter – thus, Poelzig's stepdaughter – also named Karen ((Lucille Lund)). Werdegast bides his time, waiting for the right moment to strike down the mad architect. He also tries to persuade his foe to spare Peter and Joan, at one point literally gambling with their lives by playing a game of chess with Poelzig – which he loses.
That moment comes during the beginning of the satanists' service, when a female acolyte sees something which causes her to scream and faint. Werdegast and his servant Thamal (Harry Cording) snatch Joan from the sacrificial altar and carry her into the catacombs beneath the house, where Peter is rendered unconscious by Poelzig's majordomo. Werdegast discovers that Poelzig has killed Karen and shackles him to an embalming rack, where he proceeds to literally skin Poelzig alive. As Joan tries to tear a key from the dead Poelzig's hand, Peter, just regaining consciousness, mistakes Werdegast's attempt to help her as an attack on her and shoots Werdegast. Fatally wounded, Werdegast blows up the house, first letting the couple escape but with Poelzig's "rotten cult" still upstairs. "It has been a good game," he says before he dies.Boris Karloff (simply Karloff in the credits) as Hjalmar Poelzig
Béla Lugosi as Dr. Vitus Werdegast
David Manners as Peter Alison
Julie Bishop (billed as Jacqueline Wells) as Joan Alison
Egon Brecher as The Majordomo
Harry Cording as Thamal
Lucille Lund as Karen Werdegast
Henry Armetta as Police Sergeant
Albert Conti as Police Lieutenant
John Carradine as Organist (uncredited)
Cast notesLund also plays the elder Karen Werdegast.
The Black Cat was the biggest box office hit of the year for Universal and was the first of eight movies (six of which were produced by Universal) to pair actors Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Director Edgar G. Ulmer's film was part of a boom in horror "talkies" following the release of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. The film exploited the popularity of Poe and the horror genre, as well as a sudden public interest in psychiatry.
The film has little to do with Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Black Cat", though Poe's name is listed in the credits. Peter Ruric (better known as pulp writer "Paul Cain") wrote the screenplay.
The classical music soundtrack, compiled by Heinz Eric Roemheld, is unusual for its time, because there is an almost continuous background score throughout the entire film.
The movie bears no relation to the 1941 The Black Cat starring Basil Rathbone except for the presence of Lugosi in both pictures.
The film was originally released in UK cinemas under the title House of Doom.
The film – and by extension, the character of Hjalmar Poelzig – draws inspiration from the life of occultist Aleister Crowley. The name Poelzig was borrowed from architect Hans Poelzig, whom Ulmer claimed to have worked with on the sets for Paul Wegener's silent film The Golem.
Upon the film's original 1934 release, The New Times wrote ""The Black Cat" is more foolish than horrible. The story and dialogue pile the agony on too thick to give the audience a reasonable scare."
On the movie review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, the film received has a rating from critics of 87%. The film was also ranked #68 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments for its "skinning" scene. The critic Philip French has called it "the first (and best) of seven Karloff/Lugosi joint appearances. The movie unfolds like a nightmare that involves necrophilia, ailurophobia, drugs, a deadly game of chess, torture, flaying, and a black mass with a human sacrifice. This bizarre, utterly irrational masterpiece, lasting little more than an hour, has images that bury themselves in the mind."
In the 2010s, Time Out conducted a poll with several authors, directors, actors and critics who have worked within the horror genre to vote for their top horror films. Time Out placed The Black Cat at number 89 on their top 100 list.